just ponderin'

… on an old dog (and the things he’s done for love)

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We have had many dogs, my nearly perfect husband and I, and hopefully will have the room and the time and the ability to love and care for many more before we leave this ongoing silly circus that is life.

Inevitably, since our dogs have shorter life spans than we do, we have to say goodbye to them, sometimes making the decision to help them go. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am. Well, maybe it’s not that I’m surprised. It’s that I’m never ready.  This makes sense in the case of an accident (of course I wouldn’t be ready for that). But in the case of an old dog approaching his time, it’s all about the signs. It’s like a hulking freight train grinding its way to life. Slowly. Inevitably. And then it’s up to speed. And before you know it, it’s right there.

And I can hear the familiar sound of that train in the distance, and I don’t know how far away it is.

This time it’s for Grampa Monty.

The Six Million Dollar Dog.

Monty is more than ten years old, and a Bernese Mountain Dog. He is large for his breed, and big dogs don’t normally live as long as their smaller colleagues. Monty’s average lifespan was supposed to be 6 – 8 years. We’ve been enjoying borrowed time for a while now.

Oh. And he eats things.

Pica is the official term for the consumption of non-food items. Monty has it, and has earned the nickname of ‘The Six Million Dollar Dog” over the course of his ‘many’ years.  Oh, no, he didn’t eat rocks or anything that pedestrian. Monty’s tastes are far more refined. He seems to be slow moving and droopy, but in fact is rather professorial. Think of him as Eeyore, without the glum attitude or nailed-on tail. Actually, think of him as Owl in Eeyore’s body. He’s wise, and grandfatherly, but just gets some of the details wrong. For instance, it isn’t necessary to alert all the other dogs that Godzilla might be at the door, when in reality it is only Mothra (and is actually a very small, one inch version of Mothra and doesn’t require a major to do).

Also, like Owl, Monty can’t spell very well (but he pretends to be able to, and this causes a lot of misunderstanding and deciphering).

His discriminating taste leans toward socks and undergarments. And, since he is of Swiss descent, if given a choice he prefers to consume them with cheese.

Monty’s first attempt at becoming the Six Million Dollar Dog was a failure, all things considered. Oh sure, he ate something and then proceeded down a now predictable pattern involving refusing his favorite foods and then head butting us and hitting us on the foot/leg/shoulder/head (depending on where we are standing/sitting/lying down). So we took a ride to the vets and a scan showed that he had eaten something and it was obstructing everything that needs to go on when one wants to, you know, continue living. So, that day he saw his friend, Dr. Smith. Monty liked Dr. Smith okay. Dr. Smith is the type of vet that gets down on the floor and offers cookies and takes the time to rub your ears and scratch your belly (if you are his patient. Which I am not. If he reached for my ears, I would have bitten him).

Anyway, as a part of prepping for the surgery to remove whatever Monty had eaten, they gave him fluids and some medicine to relax him. And that was all Monty needed. His body gave up the underwear just like that.

Fail.

He would not become the Six Million Dollar Dog that day. Only about a six hundred dollar dog – all in – at that point (including his small adoption fee).

So after that, we were far more careful with our aim (into the clothes hampers), and Monty did not seem very interested in a repeat pica performance. And that could have lasted for the rest of his life, except for a chance meeting when he was about four.

He was limping a little bit and we called for a vet visit that day.  Dr. Smith wasn’t in the office and we were offered a visit with a brand new vet. And her name was Dr. Berkowicz.

And we walked in (okay, I dragged Monty in and he tried to dig his nails into the concrete. Every. Single. Step. Of the way). But one look at Dr. Berkowicz and he was smitten. She got down on the floor and coo’d and whispered to him. He was so taken with her that he even gave her his arm (leg) for some blood drawing. He ate her cookies (never, ever had he eaten one of Dr. Smith’s cookies – though he always seemed grateful for the gesture). He even offered her his belly.

Unbelievable.

And we left with orders to keep him quiet and the knowledge that his hips and knees were probably getting arthritic, even though he was only approaching five years old.

And we were done. That was that.

Except, we think, Monty had fallen in love.

We think he came up with a plan.

He wasn’t good at faking sick (because he always forgot that he was supposed to be sick when he was offered a bit of cheese), and he couldn’t fake being lame (because he already had medicine for that). But the last time he had eaten something he shouldn’t have, we took him to the vet. And, looking back, we think that he may have puzzled it through that he could spend more time at the vet – and with his new true love – if he ate something that would stay in longer than the underwear. So he ate a sock. And not just any sock.

A soccer sock.

Those things are huge.

And one thing we know now is that once a soccer sock decides to hang out someplace – like, say, your small intestine – it ain’t movin’.

Soccer socks are stubborn.

So, of course we didn’t know that he had eaten a soccer sock, and he hadn’t had any issues for a couple of years at that point. But the signs were too obvious to ignore. A little pacing, a little panting, a few spit ups and we were on our way to see Dr. Berkowicz.

Oh my God that dog acted like he had gone to heaven. He didn’t act like he had any issues at all. He snorted and slobbered and put on a huge show for her. I think he even made his stomach stop yammering for a bit. But he did have a problem, and it was a major one. He had eaten a killer soccer sock (not that we could tell exactly what he had eaten from the ultrasound at that point. We found out later.) And so he was prepped for surgery and they performed surgery and then he was almost the Six Million Dollar Dog.

Almost.

Dr. Berkowicz was lovely and wonderful and Monty came home and he ate and acted quite professorial and Monty-ish again (including the bad spelling). But he was unfulfilled. Incomplete.

So, about one year later – which we think was as long as he could last away from Dr. Berkowicz (and wasn’t really one year because he had to have follow ups plus his annual exam. It was probably really only six months without Dr. Berkowicz. Wus.) – anyway, about one year later he decided to try again. And if his plan worked once…

But, AH HA!

By this time, we had discovered his stash.

Yes. My then six-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog had a stash. Behind his crate in the basement, we found it. He had socks and underwear stuffed behind his crate. Not in it (that would have been too discoverable). Behind it. The dog was a lovesick evil genius. He had enough stuffed back there that he could guarantee himself nearly a lifetime of dates – er, visits – with Dr. Berkowicz if he planned well enough. And this stash made so much sense because we are not the neatest family on the planet but we do not have socks and underwear strewn on the floor or on feeding hooks for lovesick Bernese Mountain Dogs. He had to be getting these things from somewhere (and he must have been stockpiling for years!).

So we removed his stash and ensured we were all buttoned up in the socks and underwear department. Unfortunately, he was still one step ahead of us. And we knew this one night, months later, when he became restless and began pacing.

But there was a major problem with his plan this time.

Not only can one not expect to have multiple abdominal surgeries without developing issues created by the surgeries themselves but, in this case, Monty had seriously miscalculated the timing of his ingestion.

His pacing began after our normal Veterinary Hospital’s regular hours.

On a weekend.

So instead of the enchanting Dr. Berkowicz stroking his head lovingly as his tongue lolled and his eyes sparkled adoringly, he saw a very stern vet with an eastern European accent at the 24-hour emergency animal clinic. And he needed emergency surgery so we could not wait. And that time they pulled out another sock – a little one, with a Nike swish on it. I wonder if, right before he gulped it down, he encouraged himself by thinking, “Just Do It”.

So even though he got to do his follow up visits with Dr. Berkowicz (and he loved that), he had learned his lesson. The best laid plans and all that.  Since Monty can’t read all that well – and has terrible troubles with numbers – he could not have confidence, at any given time, that he would not end up at the 24 hour emergency vet as opposed to being in the tender care of his true love.  He wasn’t going to risk possibly coming face to face with Dr. Hannibal Lecter at the 24-hour animal clinic again.

What? It could happen.

So fast forward about four years to approximately now.

Over the past few months, we have noticed that Monty has been loosing weight. This is common as dogs get old, but his is excessive. We’ve been working with Dr. Berkowicz to figure out what’s going on.  This is a more chronic issue than an obstruction. We know we might find things we wish we didn’t have to know about.

But I’m no dummy.  This could be nothing.

I live with the Six Million Dollar Dog, and I know how he pines for as many visits to the Doc of his dreams as he can get. It would not be out of the realm of possibility that he is committing intentional anorexia. Sure, because he can’t read well – and his paws are way too big to make his way on-line to Dog Web-MD – he probably doesn’t really know what anorexia is. So the weight loss probably has a medical basis. But I’m not ready to acquiesce just yet.

However.

There is always a balance when it comes to these things. Monty is an old dog and he has bad hips and knees. But he is still jolly. And he still loves Dr. Berkowicz (and she him, I suspect) and true love deserves a chance. So in the process of doing some more tests the other day, we did an ultrasound (he had already had a series of x-rays), and were shocked to find out he has a ‘foreign body’. Again. This wouldn’t be the cause of his months of weight loss. Obstructions cause far too much damage in just hours or days, let alone a week or weeks (or many months). He had to have eaten this thing very recently. He was acting absolutely fine so we wouldn’t have known. But the ultrasound revealed it. And, sure enough, he started pacing last night.

Clearly he wasn’t sure that weight loss would lead him to his beloved Dr. Berkowicz, so he took the risk and ate something. He must have spent a lot of time on one heck of a risk-reward analysis because he hadn’t pooped out so much as a toy’s squeaker in more than four years (due to his fear of Dr. Lecter, I’m sure).

It’s at these times that those who love their animals have to have important talks. And they are awful talks, and they require an acknowledgement of the gut-wrenching three-way intersection of love, responsibility, and finance. For me, it is far easier (but still very, very hard) to help an animal who is clearly at the end of its time on this earth, to the next chapter of his or her soul’s journey.  If prolonging life means prolonging suffering, then I see it as my responsibility to help each of them go when it is time. It is my final show of respect, given in return for the privilege of owning, knowing and loving them.  But it is so much harder when the line is not so clear.

Monty has an obstruction, but he also most likely has something sinister going on in the background. We suspect a form of cancer based on the blood and other tests we’ve done. He is a high-risk candidate for abdominal surgery due to his age and his past surgeries. But he is a happy, active (relatively) boy.  Right now things – as in medical things – just aren’t adding up. This isn’t a clear case in so many ways.

Last night at 1:00 a.m., I found myself on the phone to Monty’s true love. If he ever doubted that his love was returned, it should have been squelched right then and there, as I spoke to Dr. Berkowicz from our back patio, rubbing Monty’s head and listening to his belly grumble, while Cassiopeia gazed down at us from her upside down thrown.

He is, at this moment, in surgery. We decided, and the tests showed, that his heart (and, we believe, his spirit) is vital enough to survive the surgery required to remove whatever it is he ate. We know that they may find the sinister something that has been lurking in the background and, if they do and it is terrible, they have instructions to shepherd him to the next chapter in his life without waking him up. We will give him that. He does not need to wake up from surgery just to say goodbye to us.

Monty is my son’s dog. Sam came with me to the veterinary hospital in the wee hours of this morning, and we both said ‘goodnight’ and ‘see you soon’ to our big boy. The house is quiet today. We will keep our fingers crossed, and ourselves by the phone.

And I will be grateful.

And I will try to remember:

We have had many dogs, my nearly perfect husband and I, and hopefully will have the room and the time and the ability to love and care for many more before we leave this ongoing silly circus that is life.

Thanks for readin’.

 Update: We just got a call from Monty’s surgeon, Dr. Blake. They found the obstruction. She sounded amused as she tried to explain what the obstruction was. Her words were, “I don’t know what this freakin’ thing is!” and she laughed. And I laughed.  I like her style. She said that it is possible that what they found was in his belly for quite some time, before moving lower. If this is true, we may have an answer to his mystery weight loss. And that would be great news. She assures us he is resting comfortably.

And I talked to Dr. Berkowicz tonight too. And she told me that she has a fourteen year-old Bernese Mountain Dog patient.

I like her style too.

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